Wheelchairs Give Recipients Wings
July 2003

“Wheelchairs Give Recipients Wings,” Ensign, July 2003, 74–75

Wheelchairs Give Recipients Wings

You have to see how they arrive to really understand how they leave. One man carries a smiley son who is literally as big as he is. A little girl with her hair in pigtails shuffles on all fours, unable to straighten her legs. A man in a brightly colored shirt and Hawaiian-print shorts walks on calloused knees. A man scoots on a board with wheels, holding blocks of wood in his hands to propel himself.

They all have come to receive wheelchairs. Representatives of the Church, in partnership with the Wheelchair Foundation, are on hand to distribute chairs to hundreds of people unable to afford them. In many cases the country’s first lady is there to assist, and in some cases the nation’s president is there too.

This scene has been repeated in 27 countries since October 2001 as the Church has helped place 17,000 people in wheelchairs.

“How can there be a greater humanitarian work than helping the disabled?” asks Garry Flake, director of humanitarian emergency response for the Church.

A recent distribution of wheelchairs took place in December 2002. Brother Flake made stops in Mexico, Costa Rica, Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile. Along the way he was joined by members of Area Presidencies and their wives, as well as by Bishop Richard C. Edgley, First Counselor in the Presiding Bishopric, and Sister Bonnie D. Parkin, Relief Society general president.

At a stop in Mexico City in December, the Church’s representatives, the Wheelchair Foundation, and the First Lady’s organization Vamos México presented 1,400 wheelchairs to disabled individuals. Mexico’s President Vicente Fox and First Lady Martha Fox attended the ceremony and thanked the Church for its efforts.

“It has been a great privilege for us to participate with the Wheelchair Foundation and to see the effects it has in the lives of the recipients,” says Bishop Richard C. Edgley.

Founder and philanthropist Kenneth Behring attributes the idea of the Wheelchair Foundation to an interaction he had with the Church in 1999.

“I owe this blessing to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” Mr. Behring told graduates at Brigham Young University where he was awarded an honorary doctorate at the August 2002 commencement ceremonies. “About three years ago [the Church] asked me if I had room on my plane to drop off 15 tons of canned meat for refugees in Kosovo. Then the Church said, ‘And is there any chance that you might have a little extra room to drop off some wheelchairs in Romania?’

“I had never really thought about wheelchairs before. After that trip, I could think of little else.”

Mr. Behring went on to establish the Wheelchair Foundation, and a few years later, Church Humanitarian Services responded to a report that the foundation was looking for partnering organizations. When Mr. Behring traveled to Salt Lake City, the Humanitarian Services staff realized he was the person who had previously helped transport items to Kosovo and Romania. The Church partnered with the organization and started deliveries in October 2001.

“Everything changes with the mobility that can come through a wheelchair,” says Brother Flake. For the recipients it means being able to go to school, get a job, or simply leave the house. For some it means looking at people’s faces instead of their feet, moving themselves around rather than waiting for someone to move them, or getting out of bed for the first time in years. Wheelchairs also help caregivers, offering a measure of relief from carrying their growing children and providing constant care.

Etenesh Worikich was born with serious birth defects and has been homebound her entire life. When wheelchairs were distributed in Ethiopia, she was fitted with her own. “Now I can do whatever I want to,” Etenesh says, gently patting the armrests of her new chair, “maybe even go to school. Twenty-two is not too late to start, is it?”

For Hegazia Kamallah, receiving a wheelchair helped her regain dignity she lost when diabetes took the use of one of her legs. “I have crawled like a baby,” she says. But with the gift of the wheelchair, she declared, “I will never be shamed again from being dirty. … Thank you for bringing me a way to move again.”

In Nicaragua a mother carried her mentally and physically disabled daughter to the wheelchair distribution ceremony. When volunteers placed the young girl in a chair, all attention was on the mother and child. But off to the side, the young girl’s older sister watched, tears streaming down her face.

And in Tanzania, 50-year-old Rashidi Said spoke for all the recipients at the event as he shouted from his new wheelchair, “I can fly! I can fly!”

“This brings a new life to those receiving wheelchairs,” says Mercedes Menafra de Batlle, First Lady of Uruguay.

“I can fly!” shouts Rashidi Said as he is fitted with a wheelchair. The Church has helped distribute 17,000 chairs since 2001. (Photograph courtesy of Humanitarian Services.)